SFRA Review

A publication of the Science Fiction Research Association

Robert Reed, The Cuckoo's Boys. Urbana, II: Golden Gryphon Press, 2005. 315 pp. 24.95 hb. ISBN 1-930846-37-1

Although this book is Robert Reed's third short story collection, until now I had read only a few of his novels. My first acquaintance with his work was Down the Bright Way (1991), which, if memory serves, was a candidate for the Campbell Award. Since then I have read and reviewed (favorably) two more of his novels, Marrow (2000) and The Well of Stars (2004), both of which describe events aboard a planet-sized spacecraft which is traveling the Milky Way galaxy. He has published eleven novels to date, as well as numerous stories and novellas. The Cuckoo's Boys collects twelve stories dating from 1993 to 2005, most published originally in Asimov's and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The volume also contains a useful Afterword. The stories are proof, if any is really needed, that Reed is a really fine writer of science fiction. He fully deserves the numerous honors his stories and novels have won. The stories here are technologically rich, emotionally intense and very interesting. Reed explores the interaction of humanity and technology "from the inside," using first-person narrative to convey his characters' often painful, sometimes terrible struggles with a world made strange by scientific change.

Scientific and technological changes make Reed's stories possible, but hymning or damning these changes is almost never the theme. They just situate the human drama. The first story of the collection is fairly typical in this regard. "On the Brink of that Bright World" imagines what someone might do when the first messages from extraterrestrials arrive and all eyes are on the stars. It really isn't what we usually expect from SF (explorations of decoding/translation, concerns about alien intentions, the impact on culture, etc.), yet Reed's take on this traditional scenario seems plausible and bitterly insightful, and reminds us that life and death are scaled processes, ongoing even in the midst of grand events.

There's a nice variety to the stories in this collection. One or two resonate with contemporary issues, but Reed does not come across as a writer of simple parables about current events. "Savior," for example, calls to mind recent debates about the value of torture in the "war on terror," and suggests that the terrible deeds men do in wartime — for the best of reasons, in the fog of battle — may come back to haunt them later, when the smoke clears and hindsight can see the plain truth, but the story is not as much about the policies of the Bush administration or any other current event as it is about how we treat our heroes, their heroism, and our history. "The Children's Crusade" may remind us of NASA's recent problems with the space shuttle and other projects, and the public's lack of enthusiasm for the space shuttle program after the Challenger disaster. Given these and the pressing needs here on Earth, how will we get to Mars and Beyond, and who will go?

Several of the stones — "Night of Time" and "River of the Queen" — are set on the Great Ship, although we do not really need to have read Marrow, The Well of Stars, or other stories set in the Great Ship cosmos, such as the recent novella Mere, to appreciate what is going on, since what is going on is humanity's ongoing struggle with time, memory, life, and love.

The speculations about advances in science and technology in Reed's stories seem very consistent, and functional. He imagines the conquest of aging (death by violence is still possible) and the evolution of humanity by means of technology into a wide variety of forms (clades). He imagines the development of autonomous Artificial Intelligences, and the existence of a wide variety of starfaring, long-lived alien beings. Hence he can tell tales of seemingly endless life aboard the Great Ship as it travels at relativistic speeds through the galaxy ("River of the Queen"), of humanity evolving into god-like beings of many sizes and shapes ("Coelecanth"), of humans kept as souvenirs by their own proud creations ("The Children's Crusade"), of humans using viruses to clone themselves by the thousands and how those cloned thousands cope ("The Cuckoo's Boys").

Reed's writing is in the tradition of Heinlein at his best, and he deserves to be read widely. Strongly recommended.

— David G. Mead, SFRA Review #275, Jan/Feb/March 2006


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